Plastic Waste: Where your Trash Travels

The ocean, the source of life as we know it, is under siege from a growing problem that could jeopardize the planet as we know it. This threat is known as the plastic waste that gets washed into the ocean from landfills, private polluters, and storms. What’s troubling is that this problem is on the rise as nations increase their consumption of plastic products to supply the economy. To understand how this problem is impacting the planet, it is vital that we look at what plastic waste is doing to the ecosystem.

The source of most of the plastic that enters the ocean come from countries with large populations. According to World Atlas, the largest countries associated with poor waste management systems are China, Indonesia, Philippines, and numerous others listed below. The United States rests at around 0.3 million metric tonnes of plastic waste that pollutes the oceans. What is clear is that these countries waste mismanagement is causing a global issue that impacts us all.

Mismanaged Waste Programs
Countries who have poor plastic waste management. Source:

However, what about plastic in the ocean that causes such damage to the environment? For one thing, plastic breaks down slowly, allowing it to remain in the ocean for a long duration. In addition, plastic bags could be mistaken as jellyfish to sea creatures; thus causing them to ingest the plastic and causing damage to their digestive systems. Finally, when plastic does breakdown, it is broken down into little pieces called microplastics. These pieces, less than 5 mm in length, are detrimental to wildlife due to their capacity to be found in creatures who mistakenly ingest these particulates. What’s more troubling is that microplastics are found in the fish that we consume. Not only does this damage the wildlife, it has also impacted human populations.

sea turtle eating plastic.jpg
Sea creatures are ingesting the plastic we put into the oceans. Source:

Another concerning problem is the fact that the trash in the ocean has accumulated into large pools in certain areas. In the Pacific, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a massive trash heap that occupies two locations, one outside Japan, and the other near the United States:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Source:

As you can see, this collection of trash covers a massive section of the Pacific Ocean. Consider the fact that these trash islands occupy a size greater than that of Texas. If this continues, we will see this trash patch continue to grow exponentially over the coming years.

The question now becomes how do the countries, of the world, come together to address this growing crisis? Non-profits have been a part of this struggle for years, raising awareness, leading beach clean-ups, and lobbying governments to do more. Organizations like the Ocean Conservancy, 5 Gyres, and the United Nations, have put forward initiatives to take on the challenge of raising awareness of the issue and providing calls of action to the problem. Most recently, the European Union has adopted the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy to address the issue of plastic waste in the oceans. This strategy calls for the following:

  1. Improve design and support innovation to make plastics and plastic products easier to recycle
  2. Expand and improve the separate collection of plastic waste, to ensure quality inputs to the recycling industry
  3. Expand and modernize the EU’s sorting and recycling capacity
  4. Create viable markets for recycled and renewable plastics

While these strategies are a positive step in the right direction, countries that contribute the most to poor plastic waste management will need to build effective strategies to combat the issue. In addition, countries, like the United States and Japan, should take constructive steps to finding solutions to managing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between the two nations. In addition, as private citizens, we can all do more to be proactive in managing this crisis. The biggest step is ensuring that you recycle all of your plastic material to the right facility for collection. In addition, become a member of a local trash pick up group to keep your community clean. While many of us might not live near the coast, we do live in communities that could benefit from trash clean-up. Most importantly, share this knowledge with your friends and family. The only way we can tackle this issue is by raising awareness with others. Only then will we collectively be able to push for the change necessary to save the oceans, and the wildlife within it, from the plastic that impacts us all.

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